Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Eight Tips for Better Brainstorming

1. Use brainstorming to combine and extend ideas, not just to harvest ideas.
Andrew Hargadon's How Breakthroughs Happen shows that creativity occurs when people find ways to build on existing ideas. The power of group brainstorming comes from creating a safe place where people with different ideas can share, blend, and extend their diverse knowledge. If your goal is to just "collect the creative ideas that are out there," group brainstorms are a waste of time. A Web-based system for collecting ideas or an old-fashioned employee suggestion box is good enough.

2. Don't bother if people live in fear.
As Sigmund Freud observed, groups bring out the best and the worst in people. If people believe they will be teased, paid less, demoted, fired, or otherwise humiliated, group brainstorming is a bad idea. If your company fires 10% of its employees every year, for instance, people might be too afraid of saying something "dumb" to brainstorm effectively. It is better to have them just work alone.

3. Do individual brainstorming before and after group sessions.
Alex Osborn's 1950s classic Applied Imagination, which popularized brainstorming, gave advice that is still sound: Creativity comes from a blend of individual and collective "ideation." Skilled organizers tell participants what the topic will be before a brainstorm. I once went to a session on how to give an "itch-less haircut," and, at the suggestion of the organizer, took a preliminary trip to a salon where I asked the stylist for a cut as "itch-free as possible" to jumpstart my thinking. At the brainstorm, I reported how tightly the stylist wrapped the cape around my neck and how she put talcum powder all over me—effective, if uncomfortable and messy measures.

4. Brainstorming sessions are worthless unless they are woven with other work practices.
Brainstorming is just one of many practices that make a company creative, and it is of little value if it's not combined with other practices—such as observing users, talking to experts, or building prototype products or experiences—that provide an outlet for the ideas generated. Some of the worst "creative" companies that I've worked with are great at coming up with new ideas, but never actually get around to implementing them. A student and I once studied a team that spent a year brainstorming and arguing about a simple product without producing even a single prototype, even though a good engineer could have built one in an hour or two. The project was finally killed when a competitor came out with the product.

5. Brainstorming requires skill and experience both to do and, especially, to facilitate.
In all of the places that I've seen brainstorming used effectively—Hewlett-Packard, SAP's Design Services Team, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (or "The"), the Institute for the Future, Frog Design, and IDEO—brainstorming is treated as a skill that takes months or years to master. Facilitating a session is a skill that takes even longer to develop. If you hold brainstorms every now and then, and they are led by people without skill and experience, don't be surprised if participants "sit there looking embarrassed, like we're all new to a nudist colony," as one manager toldThe Wall Street Journal. That is how humans act when they do something new and have poor teachers.

6. A good brainstorming session is competitive—in the right way.
In the best brainstorms, people feel pressure to show off what they know and how skilled they are at building on others' ideas. But people are also competitive in a paradoxical way. They "compete" to get everyone else to contribute, to make everyone feel like part of the group, and to treat everyone as collaborators toward a common goal. The worst thing a manager can do is set up the session as an "I win, you lose" game, in which ideas are explicitly rated, ranked, and rewarded.

A Stanford graduate student once told me about a team leader at his former company who started giving bonuses to people who generated "the best" ideas in brainstorms. The resulting fear and dysfunctional competition drastically reduced the number of ideas generated by what had been a creative and cooperative group just weeks earlier.

7. Use brainstorming sessions for more than just generating good ideas.
Brainstorms aren't just a place to generate good ideas. At IDEO, these gatherings support the company's culture and work practices in a host of other ways. Project teams use brainstorms to get inputs from people with diverse skills throughout the company. In the process, a lot of other good things happen. Knowledge is spread about new industries and technologies, newcomers and veterans learn—or are reminded—about who knows what, and jumping into a brainstorm for an hour or so to think about someone else's problem provides a welcome respite from each designer's own projects. The explicit goal of a group brainstorm is to generate ideas. But the other benefits of routinely gathering rotating groups of people from around a company to talk about new and old ideas might ultimately be more important for supporting creative work.

8. Follow the rules, or don't call it a brainstorm.
This is true even if you only hold occasional brainstorms and even if your work doesn't require constant creativity. The worst ""brainstorms"" happen when the term is used loosely, and the rules aren't followed—or known—at all. Perhaps the biggest mistake that leaders make is failing to keep their mouths shut. I once went to a meeting that started with the boss saying, "Let's brainstorm." He followed this pronouncement with 30 minutes of his own rambling thoughts, without a single idea coming from the others in the room. Now that's productivity loss!

The rules vary from place to place. But Alex Osborn's original four still work: 1) Don't allow criticism; 2) Encourage wild ideas; 3) Go for quantity; 4) Combine and/or improve on others' ideas. To steal from IDEO, I'd add "One conversation at a time" and "Stay focused on the topic," as both help save groups from dissolving into disorder.